President Obama has made two decisions that are fundamentally undemocratic. No, I do not mean the potential bombing of Syria nor the request for Congress’ approval. First, President Obama has decided that his intelligence service’s analysis that President Assad has used chemical weapons is correct. Second, he has decided that he, representing the United States, speaks for the entire world. “I didn’t draw the red line, “ he said. “The international community drew the red line.”
Democracy is not just a system of voting. It is based on the recognition that others have the right to decide what an entire population should do. In a democracy, those in the minority must accept the majority’s will. The minority accepts the majority’s decision hoping that sometime in the future the roles will be reversed.
President Obama did not wait for the international experts to finish their analysis. He declared, unilaterally, that chemical weapons had been used. And, he further declared that they had been used by the government of Syria. These declarations have not been universally accepted. Russia’s President Putin has clearly stated his objection to both assumptions. There has been no attempt by the United States to wait for the results of the experts and then to debate the results in an international forum. For if the results are as the U.S. has stated, there is ample evidence to take the perpetrators to the International Criminal Court and the United Nations Security Council. At the recent G20 meeting, the United States could not even get the world’s leaders to issue a statement condemning the use of chemical weapons by either side.
Besides somewhat specious arguments about America’s national security, President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have argued that they are defending the international norm on the prohibition of the use of chemical weapons. Both have referred to the Geneva Protocol of 1925 following the horrors of World War I. What is most disappointing in this argument is that they are unilaterally arguing for a defense of international norms while at the same time undercutting international law by acting unilaterally. If international norms and law are to be defended, they can only be defended internationally. Unilateral defense of communitarian norms is self-defeating. As Richard Falk has pointed out, the use of force by the U.S. without Security Council approval would mean that “it is necessary to violate international law so as to enforce it.” Clearly an absurd position.
If we are part of a larger system, we must be prepared to accept judgment by others. The United States has not taken its argument to the United Nations. It doesn’t matter if China and Russia are against intervention; what is important is the process of presenting the case before others outside the United States. This is an international question, not one limited to United States sovereignty.
Closer to home, I am puzzled by the argument by some in Switzerland against judgment by a European tribunal. The argument seems similar to President Obama’s: We will make our own decisions; we will only accept judgment by ourselves. Both arguments reflect an extremely limited concept of sovereignty as well as an outdated attitude toward modern interdependence. A priority of Swiss foreign policy is promoting the rule of law. Does this mean only accepting judgment by Swiss judges involving litigation with another party outside Switzerland? There is a parallel between President Obama’s refusal to present his case to the United Nations and Switzerland refusing to have foreign judges adjudicate its contentions with the European Union.
The United States firmly believes that its domestic laws take precedence over international law. In many instances, it has refused to ratify international conventions, or it has placed highly restricted amendments to protect its citizens. This exceptionalism undermines its position as a truly democratic force for universal values. The U.S. has exhorted internationalism while proceeding unilaterally. In the recent negotiations with the EU, Switzerland seems to be following the same example. Unilateralism in the name of national sovereignty weakens the very internationalism both countries claim to champion.